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What is the difference between, worry, anxiety and stress?

Worry, Stress and Anxiety

While worry, anxiety, and stress are often used interchangeably in everyday conversation, they have distinct meanings in psychology:


Worry: Worry is the cognitive or thinking part of anxiety.  It occurs within the Frontal Cortex of the brain and typically involves thoughts or anticipations about potential future events or outcomes. It involves a sense of unease or apprehension about something that may happen. Worry can sometimes be persistent and difficult to control, and it may vary in intensity.

Stress: Stress is a physiological reaction to anxiety, originating from the 'reptilian brain,' which governs the Flight, Fight, or Freeze reaction.  It is the body's automatic response to any demand or challenge, whether real or perceived. It can come from various sources including work, relationships, financial difficulties, or major life changes. Stress can manifest in emotional, physical, or behavioural symptoms, and it can have both short-term and long-term effects on health and well-being.

Anxiety: Anxiety emerges from the intersection between worry and stress – stemming from the limbic brain or the emotional / feeling part of the brain. Anxiety is a broader term that encompasses both the emotional (worry) and physical (stress) responses to perceived threats or dangers. It involves feelings of fear, apprehension, or nervousness, often accompanied by physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, sweating, or muscle tension. Anxiety can be triggered by specific situations or events (such as public speaking or flying) or may be more generalized, occurring without a clear trigger.

In summary, while worry involves thoughts about potential future events, stress is the body's response to demands or challenges, and anxiety encompasses both these emotional and physical responses to perceived threats. Each of these experiences may overlap and influence one another, but they also have distinct characteristics.


Knowing the difference between them can help you to manage and understand your own worry, stress or anxiety.

Managing worry

Remember worry is cognitive and therefore the best way to manage it is to challenge your thoughts.  Here are some effective ways to manage worry:

Identify triggers: Pay attention to the situations, thoughts, or events that trigger your worry. Once you identify these triggers, you can develop strategies to address them more effectively.

Challenge negative thoughts: Practice identifying and challenging negative or irrational thoughts associated with your worry. Ask yourself if there is evidence to support your worry, and consider alternative perspectives that may be more realistic.

Practice mindfulness: Mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing, meditation, or progressive muscle relaxation, can help you stay grounded in the present moment and reduce the impact of worrying thoughts.

Problem-solving: Take proactive steps to address the underlying issues or concerns that are contributing to your worry. Break down larger problems into smaller, more manageable steps, and develop action plans to address each one.

Practice self-care: Take care of your physical and emotional well-being by getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and engaging in activities that bring you joy and relaxation.


Managing Stress

Remember that stress is an automatic physiological reaction, which is getting you ready for flight, flight or freeze.  The best way to deal with stress is to calm yourself down.

Identify stressors: Recognize the sources of stress in your life, whether they are related to work, relationships, finances, or other areas. If you can understand what triggers your stress it can help you develop strategies to address it more effectively.

Practice relaxation / de-stressing techniques: Engage in relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, meditation, or mindfulness to calm your mind and body and reduce stress levels.

Exercise regularly: Physical activity is a powerful stress reliever. Regular exercise can help reduce stress hormones, improve mood, and promote overall well-being. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise most days of the week.

Take breaks: Incorporate regular breaks into your day to rest and recharge. Whether it's a short walk outside, a brief meditation session, or simply taking a few deep breaths, taking breaks can help reduce stress and improve focus and productivity.

Practice self-care: Make time for activities that bring you joy and relaxation, such as hobbies, reading, spending time with loved ones, or engaging in creative pursuits. Taking care of yourself is essential for managing stress and maintaining overall well-being.


Managing anxiety

Remember anxiety is the interface between stress and worry and therefore managing your stress and worry is also an effective way to manage anxiety:

Understand your anxiety: Learn about anxiety and its symptoms. Understanding what triggers your anxiety can help you develop effective coping strategies.

Manage the worry that may be underlying your anxiety: Identify sources of worry in your life and develop strategies to manage them.  See section on Managing Worry.

Manage the stress that may be underlying your anxiety: Identify sources of stress in your life and develop strategies to manage them. See section on Managing Stress.


It's important to remember that managing worry, stress, and anxiety doesn’t happen overnight.  It will have built over many years and you need time to deal with them once you’ve made the decision to do so.  It is a journey, and what works for one person may not work for another. It may take time to find the combination of strategies that work best for you. Be patient with yourself and prioritize self-care as you work towards managing your anxiety.

Seek professional help if you feel that your stress, worry, or anxiety is significantly interfering with your daily life or functioning.

First Published on Counselling Directory, 07/05/24

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